As Prepared for Delivery
Today we celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrined the principle that the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
In principle, the concept that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights seems simple. In practice, the struggle to ensure basic equality and dignity for every person continues today, in every country of the world.
I grew up during the civil rights movement in the United States. I was born the year that the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education. In that case, Thurgood Marshall, one of the greatest U.S. lawyers of the twentieth century and a future Supreme Court Justice, argued that the educational system in the Southern United States –which required that white and African-American children attend different schools– was inherently unfair, and that “separate” could never be “equal.” The Supreme Court agreed with him, and ruled that forcing African-American children to attend segregated schools violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equality for all.
While the Supreme Court decision paved the way for desegregation of schools, laws and norms prevalent throughout the Southern United States still treated people of different races unequally in all facets of life. The same year the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education, an African American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person, as was required by the law at that time. Her arrest for refusing to give up her seat sparked a year-long boycott of the bus system in the city where she lived, and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States. A year after her arrest, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring segregation on public transportation were unconstitutional.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led the boycott spawned by Rosa Parks’ simple action. He went on to become the most prominent leader of the struggle for equality in the United States. When I was young, Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. In that speech, he lamented not only segregation, but also the discrimination, poverty, and government policies and practices that kept African-Americans “exiles in their own land.” He called on all of us “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
In my lifetime, I have seen government-sponsored segregation end in the United States. I have seen laws forbidding people of the same sex from marrying struck down in state after state. I have witnessed a series of progressive steps toward recognizing in practice the “equal and inalienable rights” of every person.
Behind each progressive step have been the brave voices of men and women leading the struggle for human rights. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “Some of the greatest accomplishments in expanding the cause of human rights have come not because of legislative decree or judicial fiat, but they came through the awesome courageous acts of individuals.”
In my short time in Honduras thus far, I have had the privilege to meet many brave and committed Hondurans working to promote the fundamental dignity and equality of all.
- I have met human rights defenders, who are working to end the violence in Bajo Aguan and promote justice for victims of human rights abuses.
- I have met prosecutors and judges who have put their own lives on the line to handle cases against organized crime and narcotraffickers.
- I have met leaders within the government, the Public Ministry, and civil society who work tirelessly to defend the rights of children, women, and members of the LGBT community.
- I have met leaders of organizations representing Afro-Honduran and indigenous communities who shine a light on discrimination and work to promote equal opportunity for all.
- And I have met committed civil servants within the Ministry of Justice, Human Rights, Governance and Decentralization, and throughout the Government of Honduras, who work each day to reduce impunity, combat corruption, and promote real economic growth that lifts the poorest out of poverty.
- At this time, I also would like to recognize the President’s formal request to the United Nations to open an official office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras. My government has already pledged a substantial contribution to support this office, and I hope other donor nations will follow suit.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that promoting human rights is the responsibility of all –not just of governments, but of civil society. As President Obama has said, “strong vibrant nations include strong vibrant civil societies.” History has shown that governments that respect human rights and reflect the will of their people are more stable, secure, and prosperous over the long run.
So today, as we celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over 60 years ago, we acknowledge that the struggle for equality, dignity and respect for fundamental human rights continues –it continues in Honduras as it does in the United States. And we honor those courageous individuals in government and in civil society that are leading the struggle. As Martin Luther King said in his famous speech in 1963: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.” To Hondurans from civil society, from the Government, and from all walks of life: the United States is here to support you as you march ahead.